Evolution of Top Level Domain Names

The common impression is that the Internet was established in the early 1990s and hasn't changed much in structure since then. The reality is that it was around before that, even in the commercial sense, and continues to develop. A good example of this change is in the use of top-level domain names. Basically, these are the usually two or three-lettered abbreviations at the end of all web addresses. Getting a brief history of their origins and recent expansion can be useful for anyone planning and establishing their own presence on the web.

Before the Web

When the term web is used, it refers to Internet communications in one particular language called hypertext markup language or HTML. Even before this language became available at the start of the 1990s, the Internet was expanding in size with computer users tapping into it. Initially, the addresses used for individual computers on the Internet consisted of long strings of numbers. With a few addresses to deal with, this is all that was needed. By the mid-1980s, though, the number of addresses reached the point where an easier method was required to keep track of them. Starting in 1984, the first seven top-level domain names came about. Three of these, .com, .org, and .net, can be used by anyone without restrictions. The other four, .mil, .edu, .gov, and .int, are restricted in who can use them in their Internet address. Along with these generic names, country codes were also developed. These are two-lettered names that refer to the country of origin. Some examples are .uk for the United Kingdom or .ca for Canada. While domain names have replaced numeric codes for remembering addresses, the numeric codes are still used by the system itself to locate individual sites.


When the Internet began as a government project in the late-1960s, the work of assigning numeric and then literal addresses was informally given to Jon Postel and Joyce Reynolds at UCLA. They referred to this operation as the Internet Assigned Numeric Authority or IANA. With the introduction of the World Wide Web, there was a huge jump in Internet addresses. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Commerce created the Internet Network Information Center or InterNIC to oversee the assigning of online addresses. In turn, a single private company was contracted to handle the work and could collect fees for registrations. Because of concerns this was creating a monopoly, the non-governmental and non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN was established in 1998. Since then, they have integrated the IANA as a department within their organization and coordinate the assignment of domain names internationally. ICANN provides accreditation to hundreds of private companies to operate as registrars of domain names.

Expanding Lists

Over a two-year period starting in 2001, ICANN introduced an additional seven top-level domain names, .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro. The designation .biz was meant to provide relief from the .com domain which had overwhelmingly the most popular domain name. Over the next few years, several more were added, bringing the total to 22 top-level domain names. In 2012, ICANN began taking applications from companies and organizations to create generic domain names for a fee of $185,000 per extension. Many of these new extensions are specific to particular businesses. These new names have become active starting in January of 2015 and are estimated to number over 1,000. For the average applicant for a web address, many of these new names should cost about the same as older extensions like .com or .net.

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